Oct. 6, 2014
I spent the summer describing alternative justice systems that exist around the world and how they often are community based ( described as “Restorative Justice” in the U.S). I’ve begun a new series on “Alternative Visions of Western Criminal Justice Systems” that seeks to show how traditional community-based systems can exist alongside current Western systems of criminal justice
I was a new Judge in 1990, assigned to the existing Drug Court, a Reagan Era monstrosity that was designed to get drug offenders from Arraignment to prison as quickly as possible. I was overwhelmed by the level of need for treatment and supervision by drug dependent offenders in the city of Oakland, and decided that we would make treatment the major focus of a new drug court model.
We opened the floodgates and placed 1156 participants in the program over the first full year of the Oakland F.I.R.S.T Drug Court, (with spectacular results, Evaluations of Oakland”s F.I.R.S.T Drug Court: 1991-1993). Unfortunately the treatment, as limited as it was, was only available to a limited contingent of drug offenders and not at all to those without a drug offense charged or a drug abuse problem. The issue of who is denied treatment because they don’t fit into a predetermined treatment program bothered me then and bothers me today. I am convinced that Drug Courts and other Community-Based Courts (also called Problem-Solving Courts) are but an intermediate step in the development of a new kind of comprehensive sentencing system that will be the accepted mainstream alternatives model in the future
All serious offenders (whether felons or misdemeanants) need to be engaged in a sophisticated sentencing system that will tailor the offender’s sentence to their need for rehabilitation (i.e. drug and/or mental health treatment, education, job training, etc.) as well as their risk to the community. Rather than categorize the individual, the courts, relevant agencies, and community need to be part of a community-based sentencing process that deals with the individual rather than a predetermined subset of offenders (who may receive intensive treatment in a Drug, Mental Health, Driving Under The Influence, Domestic Violence, or other Problem Solving Court).
We’ve had the opportunity to test this thesis in the Veteran’s Courts (and to a lesser extent Reentry Courts) that have proliferated across the nation over the past several years. Veteran’s Courts treat veterans charged with criminal offenses, period. They do not reject serious or violent offenders. Offenders are not categorized or rejected for failure to be a drug offender or mentally deficient. They welcome all offenders who are in need of special support, monitoring or rehabilitation. They are assisted by volunteers from the community at large and the Veteran’s Community in particular. They are not pigeon-holed.They are simply recognized as individuals with problems that need attention.
Of course, we are willing to assist the veteran who has committed a criminal act very differently than we do the common criminal. But the way we approach the veteran’s offense is the key to successful alternatives to incarceration in the future. When we stop putting individuals in boxes, consider them as we do veteran’s, worthy of redemption, and treat them as human beings with critical needs, and ultimately as part of our communities, we will be on our way to a critical systemic change in how we deal with our criminal population.
These observation are to be part of a book to be published on the History of NADCP and the Drug Court Movement.